Since graduating from Chef’s Training six years ago, Elena Balletta has worked extensively in New York City’s vegetarian restaurant scene. Her accomplishments include running the wholesale business at Pure Food and Wine, working as pastry chef for Heirloom with Matthew Kenney, working under executive pastry chef Bill Corbett at Dona, opening Broadway East, and running a monthly vegan supper club with Chef Scott Winegard called “Nasturtium.” For the past year, Elena is working as pastry chef and kitchen manager at Counter.
Elena first came to Counter at the request of her friend, and then chef, Scott Winegard. It was while Elena was helping out wherever she could that the general manager “held up a dessert menu, flipped it to its blank side, and said, ‘It’s all yours. Do whatever you want.’ I suppose that was their way of hiring a pastry chef! I also am the kitchen manager, working side by side with Chef Whitney Aycock in menu planning and restaurant concept.”
Counter has had its ups and downs over its seven years of existence, but owner Deborah Gavito was ready, as Elena puts it, “to have a team of people that she could trust so she could take a step back. I felt I had come into a kitchen that had been neglected for so long, that it was almost past the point of repair. It was pretty chaotic, a lot for anyone to take on.” Those days seem to be over, as Counter has recently received positive and consistent attention on several occasions from the likes of Wine Spectator and Zagat Survey.
The restaurant is now under the capable direction of Chef Whitney Aycock who, with Elena’s help, has created a Mediterranean-influenced menu ranging from small plates to entrees, “all focusing on vegetables, grains, legumes, and greens. 90% of the menu is vegan. I honestly think there are only two items on the menu that can’t be made vegan upon request. We work with two local farms, Satur and Blooming Hill. The winter is rough, but we are still managing to get some really nice produce.”
I asked Elena what she has done to improve the dessert menu, and she told me “The standards are always high for me. I am passionate about creating vegan desserts that are equal to, if not better than, their dairy counterparts. I want my desserts to make you feel special. Not a totally pretentious, overdone plate, but just right.” One of Elena’s specialties is her vegan ice cream. “Believe me,” she says, it has taken years to perfect vegan ice cream.”
Elena thinks the future looks bright for Counter: “We really have given the whole place a much needed face lift. As soon as the weather is nice enough to open those front windows, we will be serving breakfast and lunch during the week. Elena recommends watching the website for the upcoming anniversary party, wine-pairing events, and fundraisers.
Counter has taken Natural Gourmet interns in the past, and Elena wants NGI students to know “we are definitely open to interns, and I feel we have a really great kitchen family that anyone would be happy to work with. I have had the pleasure of having a few students do their internships with me since I’ve worked here.”